“I shall stick to my resolution of writing always what I think no matter whom it offends.”
Julia Ward Howe
Battle-Hymn of the Republic
Glory, glory, hallelujah!
Glory, glory, hallelujah!
Glory, glory, hallelujah!
His truth is marching on.
In researching poems for this month, I have come across several scholarly articles commenting that the Civil War was bereft of significant contributions to American poetry and literature. After digging deeper, I would say that judgement is too harsh, but one test of that claim is to ask the question; “what was written in this period that has sustained itself as relevant and popular to this day?” Popularity alone has never been a good measure of the importance of poetry, but it does matter a bit, in the sense if poems are forgotten and aren’t continued to be read, then it ceases to have a voice. When I asked myself that question; “what is one thing I can name top of mind from the Civil War in terms of poetry?’ – the Battle-Hymn of The Republic is the only thing that came to my mind.
The Battle Hymn of The Republic is a marching song that has continued in the tradition as a church hymn at least in the Presbyterian church I have experience. Yet its origins are like many hymns, the version we know today, came together through a melding of a lyrics and music that had a long oral history that changed over time. The words are credited to Julia Ward Howe, a noted abolitionist and supporter of John Brown, but she only wrote a portion of the lyrics. The most distinctive part of this song is its chorus, glory, glory, hallelujah, was lifted completely from the John Brown Song, which had lifted it from earlier hymns and camp songs popular at the time. Howe had heard the John Brown Song performed at a flag-raising ceremony in Fort Warren, near Boston, Massachusetts in May 1861, a month after the start of the civil war. The John Brown Song music and lyrics were part of a folk hymn tradition that went back more than 50 years as part of Methodist and Baptists camp meeting songs. A friend of Howe’s, the Reverend James Freeman Clark, suggested in November she write more inspiring lyrics appropriate to the times and by February of 1962, Howe’s Battle-Hymn of the Republic was published on the front page of the Atlantic Monthly and was resoundingly embraced by the Union Army and the North from that point forward. I wonder how many people who sing that song in church some Sunday, connect it’s lyrics with the conflict and sacrifice of the Civil War?
2 thoughts on “His Truth Is Marching On”
As Armistice Day has just past, I reflect on how the British took to Modernist poetry, literature, and art only after the trauma of WWI and the level of deaths suffered then. Of course the pioneers there were laying the groundwork just a few years before the WWI broke out.
But in America, still an young country in terms of it’s own culture then, had already suffered similar terrible casualties and death with its Civil War, and in the years leading up to that Walt Whitman, miraculously invented free verse and Emily Dickinson invented a poetry with Modernist elements we’re still uncovering more than a hundred years after her death.
Whitman wrote some about the war, and for a long time his two Lincoln elegies were his best known/best loved poems (as unrepresentative as Mc Captain Oh my Captain is of Whitman verse). Some Dickinson scholars see the Civil War in her poetry, and if I squint a bit I see elements in there, but am unconvinced.
The American Civil War’s impact on poetry may be a delayed thing. A significant number of those Modernist pioneers were Americans born in the post-reconstruction America. E L Masters was a Copperhead symp, Sandburg a Land of Lincoln Lincoln fan, T S Eliot had to balance Yankee roots with St Louis racism in his backrgound, L. Hughes and J. Toomer had family connections to Reconstruction figures, The Dixie-based American Fugitives and New Criticism guys, son-of-enslaved Dunbar was not a Modernist in verse form, but had to deal with that era’ and it’s code-switching, and so on. Hard to remember but the Civil War was to the Modernist explosion like “The Sixties” and the Vietnam War is to today, close enough that the battles were still echoing, and the “peace” was still being negotiated.
Great commentary. I have My Captain, My Captain ready for late in the Month and agree, Whitman’s poetry evolved as result of the torn fabric of the country he observed during the war. It started right from the beginning when he witnessed the savagery of the first Battle of Bull Run and the amount of deaths and casualty. It shook him in ways he couldn’t predict and his poetry changed with the experience. During the war, I don’t think poetry changed much as there wasn’t the emotional bandwidth for creativity for many artists. I think its similar to what some are experiencing during the Pandemic. When the drum beat daily on the news is climate change, the pandemic, war and the desperate status of migrants, its hard to find the energy to be creative. I have to admit, for first time in 30 years, I have turned off NPR on my daily drives. I think NPR has forgotten how to report on interesting things beyond climate disaster and COVID. They need new direction. Like a safe hour during the news, when they report on something else…..
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